Astros 6, Nationals 1

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HOUSTON (AP)—The Houston Astros have a healthy No. 3 starter and some power in the middle of the lineup.

Brandon Backe pitched six strong innings, and Lance Berkman and Preston Wilson hit two-run homers in the same inning for the second straight game in Houston’s 6-1 win Friday night over the Washington Nationals.

Backe, who missed his scheduled start Wednesday against Florida because of a sore back, held the Nationals to three hits in six solid innings.

“I thought from the first pitch of the ballgame he looked like he was in control,” Astros manager Phil Garner said.

Berkman and Wilson, a National last season, homered off reliever Jason Bergmann to break open a 2-1 game in the sixth. Both connected in the first inning during Wednesday’s 6-5 win over Florida.

The Astros signed Wilson in the offseason to bolster an offense that ranked near the bottom of the majors last year.

“That’s the kind of thing that’s going to make your lineup extremely tough,” Garner said. “You can’t get through them all.”

Backe is just as crucial to the Astros this season, complementing top starters Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte.

Last year, the Astros had Roger Clemens in the rotation, too. But the seven-time Cy Young Award winner is still deciding whether to retire and he can’t re-sign with Houston until May 1.

For now, Backe will try to help make up for Clemens’ absence.

“I was just really excited to get out there,” said Backe, who turned 28 on Wednesday.

Backe (1-0) made his first start since Game 4 of the 2005 World Series, when he held the Chicago White Sox scoreless through seven innings. He hurt his back late in spring training and left camp two days early to get a cortisone injection between his shoulder blades.

He put off his first start just to be safe, and the right-hander showed no signs of discomfort Friday. He sprang off the mound to field several grounders and made a quick pivot and a hard throw to first in the third inning to pick off Brandon Watson.

“It’s one of those days when you feel really good out there,” Backe said. “I had a lot of energy. It’s just really fun when you’re out there and you have those plays to make.”

Jose Vidro led off the fourth with a line-drive homer to right, Backe’s worst mistake. Backe also had two wild pitches and plunked Jose Guillen on the left arm in the sixth.

It was the fourth time in three nights Guillen was hit by a pitch. He was nailed twice by Pedro Martinez in Thursday night’s loss to the Mets and, after the second time, pointed his bat at Martinez and started toward the mound. Both benches cleared, but no punches were thrown.

Guillen made no such threat Friday, leaning over in pain behind home plate as a trainer trotted out to check on him. Guillen clutched his left forearm and calmly walked to the dugout. He did not return and was replaced by Marlon Byrd.

“That’s part of the game,” Guillen said. “You just have to get used to it.”

X-rays on Guillen’s left forearm were negative. Manager Frank Robinson said he would keep Guillen out of the lineup Saturday.

“It’s pretty sore, man,” Guillen said. “I got lucky it didn’t get my wrist.”

Tony Armas Jr. (0-1), making his first start since shoulder surgery in September, gave up four hits in five innings before giving way to Bergmann. Robinson said he got all he could out of his starter.

“It was a very good effort on his part,” Robinson said. “He threw very well, nice and loose. I did not want him to go another inning because I have to be very careful with him right now.”

Willy Taveras led off the sixth with a single before Berkman homered just over the right-field wall.

Morgan Ensberg walked for the sixth time this year and Wilson launched a high fly that caromed off the brick facade in left-center. Wilson hit 10 home runs for the Nationals in the second half last season.

Bergmann walked Jason Lane and hit Brad Ausmus with a pitch before Robinson replaced him with Felix Rodriguez.

Garner took Backe out for baby-faced rookie Taylor Buchholz to start the seventh. Buchholz, who made his major league debut, is slated to start Tuesday in San Francisco.

Buchholz allowed one hit in 2 1-3 scoreless innings. Mike Gallo finished up in the ninth.

Craig Biggio, 0-for-12 against Armas before Friday, doubled high off the left-field wall in the third to score Adam Everett, who singled. Biggio went to third on Taveras’ single and scored on Berkman’s sacrifice fly.


Astros closer Brad Lidge has started using a split-finger fastball he worked on in spring training. “A lot of guys know what I throw at this point in my career,” Lidge said. “This gives them something else to think about.” Lidge has relied mostly on a fastball and slider in his first four major league seasons. … Former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, attended an Astros game for the first time this season. The Bushes live in Houston and have reserved seats behind home plate. … Biggio’s 607th double left him 17 behind Hank Aaron, who is ninth on the career list.

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